Chavruta study in a Yeshiva

I’ve been asked to describe chavruta study, and why I can’t “study ahead” on my own, or why my chavruta and I don’t meet together in between our classes….

It’s difficult to explain, because in our Western mindset and teaching approaches, yeshiva education and chavruta learning is very different. This is my current best explanation of the differences.

How Yeshiva study differs from traditional Western education….

Western educational approaches focus on an outcome, that of meeting a goal of learning certain points about a particular topic. This is usually accomplished by interaction only with a teacher or text, and in a group with minimal interaction and discussion. Study outside of the classroom is usually required, and usually solo with the student and the text or workbook being the focus. Sometimes there are study groups or study with a tutor, but mostly, it is individualized study with an end goal/product in mind.

For the most part, it is a top down model: teacher & textbook/educational materials flowing down into the individual brains of students who might be together in a room, but the transmission of information so as to learn key points of a particular topic is the usual and customary top down educational model.

Yeshiva study is based on a different model, and always makes use of a chavruta (study partner). While certain texts are studied in Yeshivot (plural form), these texts are not the same as textbooks.

The chavruta learning environment requires a particular text AND the interaction and communication of the chavruta pair. This is considered to be a three-way relationship– that of the two study partners and the text. This enables a sense of ownership of the text itself as well a sense of being in conversation with the text., as well as with one’s partner.

Our Rosh Yeshiva (head of the Yeshiva) told us that each of us is responsible for our chavruta partner’s learning. She said if a study pair came before her and one could roll the words and translations off their tongue fluently, and the other partner stumbled, the one who would fail is the partner which spoke fluently and let their partner struggle. It is a paired interaction.

Yeshiva study is not about a specific outcome, reaching an end point, and each individual person trying to obtain a certain letter grade assessment. Chavruta study is a PROCESS of learning, not a product with a firm specific quantifiable goal that ought to be reached. It is qualitative not quantitative. This is how it is vastly different from western educational methods.

This diagram shows the western model and chavruta (also spelled havruta) model:

A cherished and critical part of chavruta study is that it provides every student with opportunities for developing and internalizing values which might be buried in the text by implication and which can be discovered by partner study, as well as building a trusting relationship with one’s partner over time, and cultivating more empathy towards differing perspectives or ideas. In today’s world, this is needed more than ever.

This being said, it is also important to emphasize that chavruta study is not a debate. It focuses on the student’s own responsibility in learning, and aims to re-interpret and to construct meaning rather than memorizing something. The focus in chavruta method is on the thinking process.

Chavruta do not have to come to a consensus conclusion, to agree with one another about their interpretations of the material; they do need to understand how each other came to those conclusions, and to remain open to what might be a new or better understanding due to the very nature of chavruta learning in partnership. Neither student in a chavruta pair work in a vacuum.

Furthermore, given two different perspectives in a chavruta learning discussion, there is no winner and loser with a teacher claiming one correct and one incorrect. In the chavruta method, there is no authority for such discussions and there is only text and discussion aiming to reach collective wisdom through interpretive discussion in a collaborative environment. It necessitates each student to consider the meaning of the text from another perspective by proposing clarifying and critical questions.

Finally, why can’t my chavruta and I study on our own outside of class? I have another diagram which speaks to that.

In this diagram, we see the chavruta model as the outermost shape, consisting in six parts which happen between the study partners: listening, articulating, wondering, focusing, supporting, and challenging. The inside rectangle shows what we do when we gather again as the entire class with the teacher. Each student recites, then translates both the inside and the outside meaning of each word, then explains the meaning of the phrase, sentence or section, and then the teacher leads a class discussion. This supports the ownership of the material as well as the engagement of the study partners in pairs and as an entire group, along with the teacher.

It may seem as if there is little difference between this model and discovery-based collaborative learning. And perhaps that is comparable to this yeshiva chavruta model. The remaining difference is that the partnership learning of chavruta is not that one understands more or better than another; it is learning in that set apart space of partnership and real dialogue which is the qualitative difference. There are no grades to achieve, no extra credit to earn. While I might be at a different level than my study partner, it is important that we both work together and sit at the table of learning as equals.